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CSDE Seminar Series

Population Research Discovery Seminars

The Effects of Social Mobility on Individuals: An Initial Sketch of a Positional Sociology

Fabian Pfeffer, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Michigan & Research Assistant Professor, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research

12:30-1:30 PM PT

Researchers have long sought to estimate the effects of intergenerational socioeconomic mobility on a range of individual outcomes. There is also widespread public speculation about the role of downward mobility in explaining recent political upheaval. However, the empirical study of mobility effects faces a fundamental methodological challenge: The linear dependency among social origins (O), destinations (D), and social mobility (M = D − O), prohibits the use of conventional statistical methods to estimate the unique contributions of the three variables to any given outcome. This paper applies a novel non-parametric bounding approach to partially identify the effects of social mobility. We study the effects of absolute mobility on a range of individual outcomes, such as socio-psychological well-being, political attitudes, fertility, and health. Results indicate that – in contrast to findings from a number of recent studies – the effects of social mobility on individual outcomes are large. Finally, this particular project will be presented as part of a broader effort to construct a “Positional Sociology” that investigates the effects of ego-alter relationships across a wide range of applications — including studies of social mobility, marital heterogamy, geographic mobility, relative deprivation, and deviant behavior — which all share the same methodological challenge arising from linear dependency.

Fabian Pfeffer received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His main research interests are the comparative study of social inequality and its maintenance across time and generations. His current work focuses on wealth inequality and its consequences for the next generation, the institutional context of social mobility processes and educational inequality in the United States and other industrialized countries, and the transmission of inequality across multiple generations. He is also a Research Assistant Professor at the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research and serves as Co-Investigator of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. He leads the Inequality Lab (, a research and training laboratory that investigates the dynamics of social inequality and trains the next generation of inequality scholars.

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